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A Rapturous, Relevant, Thoughtful Show by Eclectic Violinist Concetta Abbate

Saturday night at Pete’s Candy Store, violinist Concetta Abbate held the crowd silent through a beguiling, sometimes entrancing, sometimes sprightly set of original vocal and instrumental numbers, in a duo set with similarly nuanced drummer Ben Engel. Abbate is your typical in-demand string player: one day she’ll be playing Haydn, the next psychedelic Mayan folk with Inti & the Moon, or with Rose Thomas Bannister’s haunting art-rock band.

Abbate’s own material defies categorization. It’s elegant, minutely detailed and rarely ends up where it began. Shifting between pensive ambience, graceful baroque-tinged riffs and gently churning pizzicato phrases, she made all those stylistic leaps and bounds look easy. Most of her songs are under three minutes long, so she came up with several diptychs and triptychs.

A mini-suite from her most recent studio album Falling in Time gave her a launching pad from which to sail to the top of her vocal register – for someone who sings as calmly and often quietly as she does, she has enormous range. The best of the originals might have been a lilting, rather anthemic new one, contemplating how the Brooklyn-Queens border is a graveyard – literally – and allusively referencing the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s extending that situation, metaphorically at least.

The lone cover in her set was a muted, straightforward chamber-pop arrangement of the Smiths’  There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, arguably even more cruelly bittersweet than the original since Abbate didn’t go over the top with her vocals, letting the lyrics’ angst and longing speak for themselves. Engel’s masterfully suspenseful drumming grounded the music’s upper registers while adding considerable suspense. Whether playing with brushes or mallets, from rustling whispers to spot-on imitations of Arabic drums – boomy daf and gently popping dumbek – he was always in one good place or another.

Abbate’s next gig is at the Park Church Coop at 129 Russell St. in Greenpoint on Sept 9 at 2 PM, joining an chamber ensemble for a killer program of her own work plus material by women composers Missy Mazzoli, Whitney George, Anna Bon and Kate Amrine. There’s no G train this weekend, so you’ll have to take the L to Bedford and walk. Cover is $10 and includes snacks. Abbate is also playing solo at the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 30 at 3 (three) PM.

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

Microtonal Merrymaking at the Mayflower

It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.

This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.

Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.

Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.

Concetta Abbate Records a Lush, Glimmering Album of Chamber Rock Nocturnes at Spectrum

On one hand, the cred you used to get for being in the crowd at a live album recording has lost a little lustre over the years. After all, these days, if you’re up to the job, you can make your own live album most any night and put it up at youtube or archive.org. Still, it was awfully cool to be at Spectrum Saturday night, where elegant violinist/guitarist Concetta Abbate recorded a live album with a string quartet. The experience wasn’t as intense as being at Arlene’s the night that Mary Lee’s Corvette recorded their Blood on the Tracks album (although nobody other than the band knew that would happen), or as dark as when Rasputina recorded A Radical Recital a few years later at B.B. King’s…or exasperating, like when Aimee Mann did alternate take after alternate take for her live DVD at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

This was a warmly enveloping, raptly glimmering night of nocturnes, many of them miniatures: Abbate doesn’t waste notes. What’s even better is that the lucky four dozen or so people who got to witness her quiet magic will get a digital copy of the album, and then presumably it’ll be up at her webpage. Her opening instrumental had subtle rhythmic shifts and a delicate pizzicato/legato dichotomy; afterward, a handful of numbers had light electroacoustic touches, like the second one, its allusions to oldschool soul awash in uneasily lush string textures, like a more polished version of early ELO. Abbate sang while playing, in an expressively airy, carefully modulated soprano.

Disquieting electronic washes gave way to a twinkle balanced by a spare, balletesque string arrangement on the night’s next song, beneath Abbate’s melismatic, Renaissance-tinged vocals. Ambered string washes anchored a trickily syncopated piano riff, no easy task to pull off live. The upbeat, catchy, pulsing number after that sounded like a mashup of the Universal Thump and Linda Draper’s acerbic parlor pop.

From there the ensemble took an ornate waltz arrangement up to a vividly wounded series of crescendos; then Abbate brought the lights down with a playfully psychedelic vignette in 5/4 time. Spare, spacious minimalism gave way to a brooding viola solo over tersely fingerpicked acoustic guitar, then a lively, balletesque tune, then a lushly melancholy art-rock anthem in the same vein as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s recent work. After that, the pretty waltz that sounded like the Left Banke made a striking contrast. It’ll be even more fun to enjoy the nuances of the album and ponder Abbate’s terse lyrical imagery. Abbate’s next New York solo show is on June 12 at 8 PM at Chinatown Soup, 16B Orchard St. just north of Canal.

Concetta Abbate Brings Her Elegantly Enigmatic Violin Songs to Ember Schrag’s Fort Greene Hangout

Like many violinists, Concetta Abbate is classically trained, just as likely to be found playing Ravel or Paganini as she is her own music. She finds inspiration in poetry, literature and scientific observation. The point of the “pocket-sized songs” on her loosely thematic new debut album, Falling in Time (streaming at Bandcamp) is that despite how distracted we are by the demands of dayjobs, family and (yuck) technology and social media, we mustn’t cut ourselves off from the world around us because it’s so interesting. Abbate isn’t necessarily telling us to stop and smell the roses, although she might encourage us to stop and watch the waves at the river’s edge…or the faces on the platform as the train pulls into the station. Abbate finds meaning and beauty in the seemingly mundane, translating that tersely and imagistically into a series of brief, often barely two-minute songs that could be called chamber pop or art-rock but really defy categorization.

She’s playing some of them on April 12 at 2 (two) PM at Mayflower Bar, 132 Greene Ave. just off Waverly in Ft. Greene as part of the weekly Sunday afternoon series booked by brilliant Great Plains gothic songwriter Ember Schrag, who has collaborated with her in the past. Take the G train, if it’s running (check mta.info) to Clinton-Washington; you can also take the C to Lafayette Ave. and walk straight up Greene about seven blocks. Abbate is also playing the third room at the Rockwood on April 27 with singer Tine Kindemann’s pensively psychedelic chamber pop group DK & the Joy Machine at 7 PM for $10 plus a strictly enforced $10 drink minimum.

Some of the songs on the album are just multitracked violin and vocals, Abbate altenating between bitingly terse neoromantic, sustained lines and dancing pizzicato. Others are much more ornately orchestrated. Abbate works a misty, jazz-tinged expressiveness on the opening track: “Looking for a key we can follow, and many days are many lines, too many walls that we could climb,”she muses. The second song, Burst is characteristically allusive and enigmatic, fire as metaphor for jumpstarting something – a career path? A passage to clarity? The video offers a few hints.

A jazz-tinged trip-hop number with piano and acoustic guitar, Fish is a snide portrait of a slimy guy who can’t get enough. Vibrato-heavy multitracked strings color Leaves, an achingly autumnal instrumental diptych. Firefly balances woundedly lush orchestration with noir guitar jazz: imagine Karla Moheno with strings. Spring has an aptly hopeful, dancingly wistful pulse. Then Abbate picks up the pace with Sun Song, a glistening, bittersweetly gorgeous Laurel Canyon folk-pop miniature.

She sings Oh Little Shell with a velvety, smoke-tinged delivery over spiky layers of pizzicato violin and acoustic guitar. Then she switches to Spanish for Tonada al Tiempo, with its understatedly impassioned flamenco touches. House has an eerie horror-film music-box feel echoed in its foreboding lyrics. Then, with Cave of Stars, Abbate takes that eerie ambience to even more gothic, Siouxsie-esque proportions.

Wooden Box reverts to a dancing trip-hop groove, followed by the fiery flamenco jazz of Elements. The album – a stealth contender for one of 2015’s best – winds up with Thought Thieving Hen, a surreal take on eerie early 60s style Skeeter Davis Nashville orchestral pop.